There’s little argument that advances in technology are good for big business. According to a recent study performed by industry association MHI in partnership with Deloitte, “More than half (51%) of professionals in the supply chain and logistics industry believe robotics and automation will provide a competitive advantage in their industry.”
But what does an increasingly plugged-in workplace mean for logistics employees? And how prepared is the industry to embrace this brave new world? Let’s discuss the latter question first. According a 2016 report from Deutsche Post DHL, 80% of logistics facilities across the globe still operate manually. So, there’s obvious room for substantial technological growth for those operations with the hunger to ramp up their automation processes (and the willingness to promote the necessary change management strategies to ensure success.)
But let’s pause a moment and dissect the pros and cons of automation and artificial intelligence in the logistics world, and discuss some of the surprising benefits of automation. (Spoiler alert: yes, the robots are going to take some of our jobs, but they might just help employees work smarter, enjoy safer environments, and receive better pay to boot).
WHAT DOES “AUTOMATION” EVEN MEAN?
To be clear, while automation is still new for logistics, it’s becoming increasingly prevalent in other industries across the globe. According to the International Society of Automation, the system is defined as “the creation and application of technology to monitor and control the production and delivery of products and services.” This includes artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and increased connectivity between devices and systems, aka, the Internet of Things (IoT). While it’s hard to refer to a single data point about the rate of growth in automation, one figure may help put things in perspective: During the first half of 2017 alone, robotics sales in North America were valued at a cool $1 billion, which is a 126 percent increase over 2016 numbers.
Automation may be comprised of different components depending on the industry, but it has typically been the root cause of the same consistent fear—that technology will replace hard-won jobs for good old-fashioned humans.
Some studies show that this mindset may be shifting. The 2017 Randstand Employer Brand Research report revealed that 76 percent of workers surveyed say they do not fear automation, and 84 percent of U.S. workers report that they “believe AI and robotics will have a positive impact on the workplace in the next three to five years.”
But should logistics workers be afraid? Or is it possible that increased automation could benefit employees and businesses alike?
THE LOGISTICS ROBOT REVOLUTION: (WELL TRAINED) HUMANS WELCOME
The benefits of artificial intelligence include greater efficiency and productivity, and—especially in our increasingly digital world—a greater capacity to handle complicated logistics. There’s no doubt that the need for support in this industry is great: the entire sector is facing a dwindling talent pool, to the tune of six available jobs for every one qualified person.
Robotics may hold the key to solving this HR crisis in the warehouse environment — but not in the way some might think. A recent piece in TechCrunch made the case that the adoption of automation, specifically through the use of robotic workers, could actually lead to better jobs for American logistics workers, as long as our education system keeps up with the times. “Throughout history, technology has created more, higher-quality employment for workers,” the article read. “Coupled with education, technology is the ultimate lever that allows people to produce more while ‘working’ less and achieving a better quality of life.”
The TechCrunch piece echoes a statement from Jack Ma, founder of Chinese retail company Alibaba, who recently shared his thoughts on the benefits of artificial intelligence for modern workers. Thanks to automation, says Ma, workers will need to log fewer hours and will have more time to travel and enjoy richer experiences in life. Ma does acknowledge the possible “pain” of the transition for low-skilled workers, and has advocated in the past for workers to seek out training to make themselves skilled at the tasks of tomorrow, such as data analytics.
“Robots will continuously make jobs better for humans — humans who will benefit from continuous learning to be best positioned to perform the new tasks created by the automation of the old ones,” the TechCrunch piece goes on to emphasize. In other words, while certain logistics jobs will undoubtedly be replaced by automation, the path toward more skilled and specialized jobs (i.e., higher paying) may actually be clearer than ever.
For example, ABC News recently reported on a small steel factory near Brisbane, Australia, that, thanks to artificial intelligence, streamlined its operations and increased its employee count. Instead of hiring hands to physically process the steel, the factory was able to create higher paying, more specialized jobs to manage the complexities of integrating artificial intelligence in the workplace.
Let’s not sugarcoat the effects of technology change. While the benefits of automation extend to nearly every industry, the potential for low-skilled job loss across the country is very real. But these advances can also motivate the workforce to leverage uniquely human strengths in new ways. In that vein, perhaps it makes sense to remain optimistic about the potential for individual and industry growth thanks to our new robot friends (and the brilliant human minds who create and maintain them).
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